When I was in college, a 16 year old girl promised to marry me. She wanted to name our baby “Sachin”. I believed her.
When a policeman once asked me whether I’d like to get my passport on time, I smiled with gratitude and slammed the door on his face.
When I once read, “Ron Paul is a gynecologist, and he is self-taught.”, I did not understand why this evoked laughter in an audience. I still do not.
I’ve always had a tenuous understanding of sarcasm and double-speak. I take words literally. When I was a child, it took me many years to understand hidden insults.
I’ve never had it any other way. I was not sarcastic as a child. I was too innocent to understand the art of insinuation. When a teacher was sarcastic to me at 9, I understood her only a year later. When I fully understood her, I felt numb, as if I were struck by lightning. I stood still, staring at my coconut tree. It was too late, because I’d left that city and moved into another school. There was nothing much I could do about this. This was deeply unsettling. Continue Reading
Years ago, I spent my mornings talking to an exceptionally smart Canadian teen on the internet. She loved to entertain her virtual friends by taking her clothes off. When I asked her why, she said that it was a pleasant experience for everybody concerned. But, the last thing she wanted was her mother knowing it. One day, she said that she was depressed. She said that she felt bad about being a harlot over the Yahoo Messenger. I knew this before she said it because I knew enough about human nature to be suspicious of such claims. But, the internet is the best teacher I can think of.
A decade ago, I loved reading the Orkut scrapbook of a 16 year old girl who shared her nudes for everybody to see. I was a silent spectator who enjoyed her conversations with men who entered her space hoping that there is so much that is possible. She was wise beyond her years—smart as a whip. When we once talked, she said that I should have known her horrible reputation. Her language skills were excellent, unlike that of men who stalked her. When someone called her a snob for being a grammar Nazi, she said, “When I was in middle school, I used to read high school textbooks. Nobody ever helped me.” Years later, I heard that she killed herself at UC Berkeley, where she was studying Physics. Without the internet and social media, we would not have known much about the inner worlds of outliers like her. If we knew more, she would have….she would have, well, survived.
The internet tells us that we are all so similar and so different at the same time. Nothing is more important to morality than deep insight into people who are very different from us. Moral refinement is the fountainhead of human progress. The most prosperous societies are where morality and fairness are valued to the largest degree. If moral refinement is the fountainhead of human progress, this outweighs everything else that the internet gives us. I argue that this is the most underrated fact about the internet. This is an extraordinary claim. But, one day, the internet will be celebrated for this, more than for anything else.
The internet makes us human.
Philosopher Michael Huemer thinks that political ignorance is greatest problem that we face. Huemer believes that political ignorance is a graver threat than crime, drug addiction or even world poverty, because political ignorance is at the root of everything else. He is wrong. Our moral failures are often a form of politicking. But, political ignorance does not explain everything. It is our poor understanding of ourselves and that of other minds that prevents us from solving much of our problems, including political ignorance.
If you are discerning enough, your Facebook friend list is probably a more diversified portfolio of human beings than your school or office will ever be. The best blogs say more about the inner workings of the finest minds on earth than any newspaper or magazine ever will. When the best minds are unguarded, what ensues is an unusually high supply of intelligent conversation—-and extraordinarily perceptive writing. This is why the internet is very important for moral refinement.
Now, many believe that, on the internet, no one will see the real “You”. In fact, the truth is the opposite. Over 5,000 years ago, the written word did not even exist. Aristotle would not have had much success in those days. But, this does not mean that “Nicomachean Ethics” is misleading or that Aristotle had quite a different personality when he wrote. Aristotle is remembered for his philosophical works, and not for being a wife-beater or for “not holding the gods in honor”.
Moral refinement of mankind would not have been possible without great literature. But, in a world without the written word, Aristotle’s greatest talent would not even have been a voice that people could recognize. To see the “Real Aristotle”, his contemporaries probably had to separate the “Aristotle who did not hold the Gods in honor” from Aristotle, the great philosopher. We face no such dilemma today. There is near unanimous agreement on the criteria Aristotle should be judged on. But, if the written word did not exist, Aristotle’s place in history would have been the same as that of the savages of his time. On the internet, we make finer distinctions. In the future, people will find it obvious that people were so undifferentiated before the internet. Before the internet, there was nothing but a heap of moral uniformity. For the same reason we celebrate language and literature for how far we have come today, one day, the internet will be celebrated for making people morally distinguishable.
The age of the internet is the age of abundance. This is indisputable. But, of all things we find on the internet, what matters the most is the abundance of moral perspectives. What matters the most is the abundance of knowledge about the inner worlds of people. Without knowing much about the inner worlds of people, we would never understand their moral beliefs.
In the real world, we see people. We see how they dress, walk and speak. But, their inner worlds are closed to us, and often to themselves. But, ultimately, their hidden inner worlds drive everything that they do. Hidden motives influence what people do, regardless of what they say publicly. Hidden assumptions almost determine their political and moral beliefs. But, if these motives and assumptions are hidden, often even to themselves, how do we know them? There are no substitutes for introspection, reading and hard thought. But, these are still not enough to know what other people hide, even from themselves. There is no better guide than the internet because people tend to be frank in their virtual lives. Unguarded.
Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messenger, Blogs. Yes.
Frankness on the internet may seem suicidal. A brewing revolution will always be invisible to everybody, but the most perceptive. When people underestimate the price of speaking their mind, many will. Speaking one’s mind will slowly become the norm, tweet by tweet. The price of speaking one’s mind will fall, tweet by tweet. One day, people will find it hard to believe that many of the most obvious truths about human nature were once private truths that no one spoke of.
I met him three years ago, somewhere near North Block. As a rule, I refuse to meet people in the three-dimensional world. I made an exception for him because he once tweeted that I am the most beautifully idiosyncratic Indian writer. “Now, this is somebody who has good judgment. He understands my work, unlike the half-brained slobs I see every day.” I told myself. We shall call him “Indian”. I do not want to name him and shame him. But, when I think about the “nature-nurture debate”, it is hard to get this fellow off my mind.
When I met him, he said that he “loved” a quote on my wall:
“We all talk about clarity and sanity all the time, but the truth is it’s very dangerous. True clarity and sanity won’t allow you to do anything — it will just make you jump off the building.”
I have my doubts. I am the happiest person I have ever known. My hypothesis is that most people find it difficult to get out of their beds in the morning because they are sad. It is sadness which doesn’t allow them to do anything. They are sad, but they do not see the world half as clearly as I do. This was red flag enough.
He was unbearably depressed. I found this bizarre. When I said that I found this hard to believe, he said, “I know that it is strange for a very young man to be so depressed, but this is how I feel now.” I asked him whether he was a victim of “office politics”. He said that “office politics” is not the only source of misery. There are many other. This was news to me.
He said, “I don’t think you are trying to make a point on your blog. It is always along these lines, ‘I said this to her, and then she said this to him.’ But, what comes through is the absolute pettiness that emerges from the interactions between half-anglicized Indians.” The depressed are refreshingly frank.
I tried to cheer him up saying that a Masters from UChicago will take him very far in this third-world city where people are quickly impressed. But, he said that he studied something pointless. I reassured him. He will tower over everybody like an Albert Einstein in newsrooms in Delhi where journalists have IQs in the range of hockey scores. But, he did not budge. He is useless. Pedagogues had as much as said so, in that almighty piece of paper.
It was then his grandfather called him on the phone to ask whether he took the bananas in the fridge. He said, thinking long and hard, “Strictly speaking, that is not true.” He lived with his grandparents. His grandparents and mother were doctors. But, when she was young, his topper-type mother married a never-do-well from the hills. Before his mother jilted this Pahadi idiot who never did an honest day’s job, he was crawling.
On the first day of every academic year, his teachers at Modern School asked him what his father did. He couldn’t stand this diabolic torture. When he was a child, he said, “My mother (Softly) is a doctor (Emphasis added).” Soon, it dawned on him that he could not get away with it. He learned to say that his father was in “import-export business”. But, one day a girl walked to him and said cheerfully that her father was in “import-export business” too. He did not know what to tell her. When he was twelve, he decided that enough was enough. He walked toward the teacher, leaped and whispered in her ears, “My parents are divorced, and my father doesn’t do anything.” That did it for her.
My girlfriend once told me that her schoolmates asked three questions whenever she joined a new school, “In which part of Delhi do you live? What does your father do? Which car does he drive?” In all the cosmos, nothing mattered more to them.
He was bright, but he barely graduated high school. His mother (presumably an enterprising woman) decided to ship out and live in a ghetto in the UK where his grades did not bother anyone. I asked him how he managed to get into a school in the UK. He laughed and asked me whether I was living under a rock for long. “This is the age of decadence. Educational standards have been declining throughout the world.” When he was ejected from University of Chicago at the age of 25, he resembled his father. He had no desire to work.
He said, “Your prose is very ‘westernized’. But, if you like western thinkers so much, why don’t you live in the west? Without living in the west for a few years, you will never understand the west.”
I said that there was no conscious attempt to “deracinate” myself. I do not see things this way at all. The best books are ‘western’. I haven’t really bothered to read Indian writers for the same reason I have never been on a social networking website created by an Indian. This did not convince him. He sighed saying that he did not know that colonialism spawned people who have such dichotomous lives.
He attributed much of his depression to being compelled to live in the west. He loved Nirad Chaudhuri—who loved the west—and Pankaj Mishra, who, for all ranting, still prefers to live there. When I said that we have such fucked up lives, he sighed, “But, Pankaj Mishra is having a swell time, with his British wife and everything.”
Tired hearing that a passage of Nirad Chaudhuri is enough to take libertarianism out of me, I bought Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. I read the first few dozen pages before throwing it away. It was written in the sort of pedantic prose a school headmaster turned out of a public school hundred years ago would have written.
The west was a nameless, faceless enemy. But, after a decade in the west, Indian streets had become unbearable. “I hate walking the streets because I do not like seeing these lower class people. I never go out, but when I go to the super market, the guy at the counter talks to me. I find that really oppressive”, he once said. He did not like his grandparents either. “My grandmother is so primitive. She is not westernized. I pray for her to die so that I can live in this house with my grandfather.” he said. The feeling was mutual, because he looked like his father.
His preoccupation with the west colored his perception of everything around him. Whenever he spoke, it was along these lines:
“My grandfather does not know why I lock my door when I am alone in my room. Indians do not understand the concept of privacy.”
“Theory is a western concept.”
“Morality is a western concept. Indians do not even know what “morality” means.”
“Did they understand you? I am sure that they did not. Indians do not know how to reason with each other.”
“Why do these people stare at me? Is it because I am westernized? I smile and make eye contact. I haven’t seen Indians doing that.”
But, despite everything, he loved the idea of India. Everywhere, he searched frantically for true Indianness.
Years ago, a smarty pulled a trick on me. In the mornings, she would promise to come to my room. Before sunset, while the keyboards still jingled and rattled. Beaming, I always whispered, “Why, oh, how nice of you!” But, after a while, she started defaulting on her promises.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
I waited and waited and waited till it was too dark. The reasons she gave me were always along these lines, “This morning, a coconut fell on my grandmother’s head. You know, I love her more than anyone on earth. Weeping. Sob. Sob.” Soon, suspicion began to dawn on my nerdy mind. The underlying assumption, of course, was, “Now that you have seen what it is like, if you want more of this, you must put me permanently there.” I could never get my head around this line of reasoning. But, this didn’t have any effect on me for the same reason rain does not have a big effect on the nerd who always reads in the school library.
I, the scholar and gentleman, still courted her, tolerating her antics with Buddha-like patience. I wasn’t big on sleeping with her. So, she assumed that I wanted to make her my “wife”. Now, I am being blatant at the risk of sounding honest. It is very cruel, to be honest. Continue Reading
Imagine that you have a son and a daughter. When they were walking the streets sucking on Popsicle sticks, the police arrested the girl. This is against the law of the land. How would you react? Even if you like the girl more than the boy, you won’t say, “Arrest the boy too. Name him and shame him.” Unless you hate the boy more than you love the girl, you won’t even think along these lines. You will probably want to get her out of the prison at any cost. I find this a good framework because this helps me see a lot of what happens in the world with ruthless clarity.
When the 23-year-old cutie, Sweta Basu Prasad was arrested for prostitution, this is what many people in the film industry asked: “Why is she held up for our titillation while her rich clients are still walking the streets?” If what people truly want is gender equality—if people love men and women equally—they would not have argued along these lines. Hell, they would not be thinking along these lines if they did not hate the rich men who slept with her more than they love her.
Is it even plausible that feminists are not motivated by hatred toward men?
Here is another mental experiment. You suspect that John sleeps with your wife. One day, you feel that something is awry, and knocks on his door. What if John comes out and says that he was indeed sleeping with her, and that he did not violate your rights? What if John claims that it was she who entered a marital contract with you long ago, and not John? I agree with him. I truly do.
You won’t pat him on his back for telling you the truth. But, this is still a lot better than him staying silent in his bed with your wife—and claiming that “Silence is golden”, or that the “paranoid” you does not even deserve a response. Now you know what John is up to. You also know what your wife is up to. You know what to do with her. You will probably tell her to shape up or ship out. If your wife is a great fan of polygamy and had not told you this, you can possibly talk her out of it. If this is not possible, you can tell her that this is not how you understand the contract. Honest discussions can do a great deal more good for coordination.
Now, The Times Of India journalists are defending themselves. They believe that they are within their rights to post a video of the boobs of Deepika Padukone. The critics of the Times Of India think that they should have been silent. But, why? If the TOI thinks that they have done something wrong, they should apologize. But, if they do not think so, what is wrong in explaining themselves? This is a great opportunity to tell people that morality—as they understand it—is nonsense. Even if it is true that TOI did wrong, people now know that this is intentional. If they were silent, people wouldn’t even know what they are upto.
It is perhaps true that all this is wrong, as people say. But, if people care so much for morality, why do they see candor as a form of treason?
Shanu Athiparambath: Yes. I have read a book.
Akshaya Pillai: Can you pass it?
Shanu Athiparambath: Yes. Now.
Akshaya Pillai: 🙂 Whenever you are free. I am keen on reading about it.
Shanu Athiparambath: Why so? I read about all sorts of so called mental disorders.
Akshaya Pillai: Rahul’s father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He talks a lot about it. And it sounds very interesting. I do not usually read any of this, like you know.
Shanu Athiparambath: I see. His father must be reasonably old. I think most men and women of that generation are somewhat socially adjusted.
Akshaya Pillai: The doctor here said that it runs in the family.
Akshaya Pillai: He has extreme highs and lows. When he is high, he’d invest a lot, he’d take big decisions, buy a big car, spend, he will have a lots of friends, he’d be loud and social, he’d do a lot of stuff, he’d be confident then, over confident
Shanu Athiparambath: Yeah. That is how it is. They have highs and lows. They can also be very meek when they have lows, and arrogant when they have highs. But, the way you expressed it is very accurate. When we had the conversation on Asperger, you said: “I thought these are mere preferences.
Shanu Athiparambath: Szasz said that absurd beliefs shared by millions are “healthy”; equally absurd beliefs held by a lone individual are “sick.”I do not think Indian psychologists know anything. Have you ever been to shrinks?
Akshaya Pillai: Nope. I have once told my parents that they should consider meeting a shrink or split ways. But there is such a stigma here associated with going to see a shrink
Akshaya Pillai: I think I will like “An unquiet mind”. And it is such a coincidence
Shanu Athiparambath: I see. Did you start reading it?
Akshaya Pillai: Rahul Pillai just told me this evening that he is reading it.
Shanu Athiparambath: Oh. Great
Akshaya Pillai: And when I came back
Shanu Athiparambath: It is one of the famous works
Akshaya Pillai: You had mailed it.
Shanu Athiparambath: I do not think he must have got a hard copy. What happened with his father?
Akshaya Pillai: He does. He has a hard copy.
Shanu Athiparambath: I see. How? Is it available in book stalls in Trivandrum?
Akshaya Pillai: I think he ordered the copy for his did. His dad has a bigger illness. He is a COPD patient.
Shanu Athiparambath: I see. Are both connected? I read a review on Prozac Nation. A good review. The reviewer says that if you read the book carefully, she is just a normal girl who is responding to the situations in her life.
Post Script: This is a classic case of indirect communication. What she is trying to tell is that her father has bipolar disorder and that he has a much greater disease. And whether I would just take her. Haha. Why do I post this? Ask me why!
Many decades from now, my fondest memories of elections in my youth will be that of the indelible ink mark on the fingers of conscientious people littering my Facebook newsfeed. According to the Election Commission, the polling rate in the 2014 elections is the greatest in the history of independent India. Before you sing loud hosannas to the voter who carries a part of the Indian society on his shoulders, remember: voters are like adolescent boys. It is dangerous to give them what they crave.
There is nothing more dangerous than asking an adolescent boy whether he loves his girlfriend. He might swear he will go to the ends of the world for his love, because deep down, he knows his plan will never get off the ground. The adolescent girl is far more reticent because she will ditch him and marry someone else when she grows up, which will be soon. The adolescent boy votes with his heart. For him, love is “near”, marriage is “far”. He is a visionary, but he is also a deluded hypocrite. But the adolescent girl votes with her feet because her vote is, after all, decisive. For her, love is “far”, marriage is “near”.
But then, it is impossible to give voters what they profess to like without aggressing against them, as it is impossible to give the teenage boy what he “craves” without aggressing against the girl. The aggression might as well be worth it if that is what they genuinely want. But, what if it is not? Of course, the difference is that unlike the teenage boys, the sanest among us learn to live with what the average voter chose when he was knocked out of his wits.
A few years ago, a college-mate messaged me on Facebook. He spoke hysterically. As nearly as I could make out, he was trying to tell me: “It might be true that you write well, but that does not prove anything to me. I will respect you when you tell the truth.” I understood him. This is a variant of, “Even Einstein was a boob outside physics.” The world is full of such people.
Once when I went for a job interview, I saw a lean girl sitting on an over-sized chair. She could not have placed her feet on the floor. She said that she had worked with an investigative news website. She said, “I am not a good writer, but I can break stories. Some journalists are good writers, but they cannot break stories.” I smiled politely. She then asked me, “Will they give us a byline?” I said, “I do not care whether they give me a byline as long as they pay me.” She turned silent convinced that I was not worth talking to. It was a small magazine. I do not know why she wanted that. I sat there, staring at her feet.
I did not get the job because my ex-colleague Miss Touch Me Not was working there. She back-stabbed me. That ugly little creep. I do not blame her because it was my honesty that cost Miss Touch Me Not her previous job. For a while, I had seen her walking through Malviya Nagar like a lost puppy. When she saw me, she gave me a pained look. Her boss had once asked me why I named her Miss Touch Me Not. “I do not think you would have had a hard time touching her.”, he said with a clever smile. I know why he said that. I had never seen her forego an opportunity to touch a man. She used to stay up late in the office, presumably to have a surreptitious hanky-panky with a cute designer. Continue Reading
Tarun Tejpal married at the age of twenty one. Feminists and liberals probably think this is irrelevant. In their eyes, women are helpless pawns. Men pull the strings of the world. But this cannot be true. A talented man who marries in his twenties has a difficult row to hoe. When he marries, he is usually a nobody. It is in all likelihood an unequal marriage, but often more so, retrospectively. When he becomes successful, usually around 30, his wife has become plumper, with two children. She is no longer too interested in sex. Human nature being what it is, she is also a terrible human being. He no longer values the creature that once walked away as if she bought The Fountainhead at a bargain price—because it’d make better wrapping paper. But I do not know what is worse.
He stays in the marriage, for his children. There is nothing in it for him, physically or spiritually. He probably married her when he he battled loneliness every hour of his life—-when he was surrounded by people he would have hauled out of his drawing room if he had a choice—when he felt paralyzed seeing again and again that people failed to see what he found obvious, even when he had explained patiently, down to the last detail—when he searched desperately for an ounce of morality, an ounce of intelligence in the people he worked with, and could not find. Continue Reading
The-Cute-Girl-That-Fashionably-Sleeps-So-Little is an Aspie, as I had suspected. She admitted. How do I know? A few days ago, when I was traveling in the bus, I was thinking about amusics. Amusics have no taste for music. Milton Friedman, Freud, Nabokov, and Che Guevera are good examples. Nabokov once said that his most painful experience while teaching at Cornell was that once when he was in the library, a student was listening to classical music, from his transistor radio. When Nabokov asked him to stop, he said that there was no one in the room, and that the he has kept the volume really low. Nabokov said, “But, I am here.”
I, then, remembered that The-Cute-Girl-That-Fashionably-Sleeps-So-Little once called the police because “Loud Sangeet” was coming from her neighbor’s house. Why should a shy girl call the police because someone was listening to “Loud Sangeet”? I do not know whether this fits, but Yvain has a very good explanation. On his roommate: Continue Reading